Attendees march in a pride parade in St. Petersburg, Florida, in June 2022. (Image credit: CityofStPete/Flickr)
The corporate voice has been quieter on LGBTQ+ rights over recent years, even as hundreds of new state laws attack gender-affirming medical care along with education, entertainment, literature and other areas of LGBTQ+ expression. Now the tide could finally be turning. The Walt Disney Co. plans to host a major rights conference in central Florida this September, and dozens of high-profile U.S. brands are expected to attend — from Apple and Amazon to Uber and Walmart.
The Out & Equal conference hosted by Disney could mark a turning point for a number of reasons. Chief among them is the choice of location. Disney could have hosted the conference at one of its resorts in a state where LGBTQ+ rights are not under attack by Republican-dominated legislatures. The company operates three resorts in California, for example.
Instead, it took the fight to the dragon’s mouth. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been courting former President Donald Trump’s “MAGA” voters in a bid to raise his national profile in preparation for a White House bid in 2024. In addition to publicity stunts that grab the national media spotlight, DeSantis has garnered a reputation for mirroring the legislative policies of the authoritarian government in Hungary, aimed at silencing the voice of political opposition.
On LGBTQ+ issues, Florida took the lead in repression when the state legislature passed the notorious “Don’t Say Gay” law, which took effect on July 1, 2022. The law was ostensibly aimed at shielding the very youngest students, from kindergarten through third grade, from premature discussions of sexual identity. However, the law opened the door for the DeSantis administration to ban gender discussion all the way up through high school. As reported last week by the Orlando Sentinel, the expansion is an administrative procedure that will not require new legislation.
Somewhat ironically, the 2022 version of the Don’t Say Gay law set the stage for Disney to bring the LGBTQ+ conference to Florida. When the legislation was working its way through the Florida state legislature last spring, Disney failed to take a public position against the bill until employees took to social media in protest. That finally motivated then-CEO Bob Chapek to explain his position at the company’s annual shareholder meeting on March 9, 2022.
“Chapek explained that Disney leaders were opposed to the bill ‘from the outset, but we chose not to take a public position on it because we thought we could be more effective working behind-the-scenes, engaging directly with lawmakers — on both sides of the aisle,’" NPR senior producer Elizabeth Blair reported. At the shareholder event, Chapek said the company was "'reassessing our approach to advocacy — including political giving in Florida and beyond,'" NPR reported.
DeSantis clapped back almost immediately with new legislation aimed at stripping Disney of its autonomy to operate the sprawling Disney World complex. The new law was widely seen as punishment for the company’s failure to toe the DeSantis line.
The high-profile punishment seemed to achieve its desired effect, leading other corporations to hesitate to speak up for LGBTQ+ rights. DeSantis also turned up the pressure last month with the passage of another law establishing a Republican-controlled board to oversee municipal services within the Disney World district.
However, it appears the “Disney Effect” had a rather short lifespan. The Miami Herald reported news of the upcoming LGBTQ+ rights conference last week, less than a month after DeSantis established the new oversight board.
“The Walt Disney Company will host a major conference promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in the workplace in Central Florida this September, gathering executives and professionals from the world’s largest companies in a defiant display of the limits of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign against diversity training,” the Herald reported.
The conference is an extension of Disney’s ongoing relationship with the workplace advocacy group Out & Equal, which is organizing the event. Dozens of “iconic American companies” are sponsoring the event, the Herald reported, to be held at the Walt Disney World Resort from September 11 to 14 with more than 5,000 projected attendees.
On its website, Out & Equal lists scores of high-profile U.S. corporations as partners, including Disney in its top “Titanium” class along with Dell, Bank of America, Uber, JPMorgan Chase and the global information services firm Experian.
The Out & Equal partner list encompasses a broad range of corporate activity and top employers, including the defense contractors Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon Technologies, which are listed in the Gold level, along with HP in the Platinum level and Lockheed Martin in the Bronze level. The organization also counts John Deere, Cracker Barrel and Stanley Black & Decker among its partners, along with ExxonMobil and other fossil energy companies generally associated with Republican-leaning political persuasions.
Bringing scores of corporate leaders to an epicenter of legislation-empowered hate and bigotry is a big step forward for Disney, which has been struggling to recover from last year’s debacle.
As for DeSantis, despite his efforts to out-perform Trump on culture issues, he has a long way to go before catching up to Trump in the polls. Though not a formal candidate yet, DeSantis has been visiting early-voting states including Iowa and New Hampshire. Polling this week shows him running competitively with Trump in those two states. However, in national surveys he runs far behind Trump, who continues to suck oxygen out of his presidential ambitions.
Despite his legal troubles, Trump could still draw the winning card in the primary election. And if DeSantis prevails, he will face an uphill battle from disillusioned Republican voters along with Democrats and Independents in the general election.
It remains to be seen whether or not corporate voices will join voters in pushing back against bigotry and hate during the next presidential election, but there is a good chance they will. Disney and Out & Equal plan to bring the LGBTQ+ conference back to Florida again in September 2024, just in time for the presidential election cycle to heat up to the boiling point.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.